Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5 -6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
This sermon was preached at the Episcopal Church of the Nativity in San Rafael CA on January 24, 2016.
In the Gospel this morning, Jesus teaches the importance of preaching a short sermon. After reading the Scripture assigned in the Jewish lectionary for that day, Jesus offers a sermon that is only one sentence long (4:21)! And, as we will read next week, everyone loves this sermon. They say, “He’s amazing! His words are so full of grace!” However, Jesus makes the mistake of opening his mouth again and making his sermon a little longer and a lot more challenging and, as a result, everyone in the synagogue literally tries to throw him over a cliff! So today I feel the Gospel inviting me to preach a slightly shorter sermon.
Jesus makes his short sermon about himself, saying, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” So I feel invited to preach not only on Christ, but also to share part of my own story and how it relates to today’s readings.
As most of you know, about two years ago today, I was ordained to the priesthood in Los Angeles (after a long process of discernment). You all hosted a beautiful celebration of my ordination here on February 1st of 2014, on the feast day of St. Brigid, a celebration attended by youth and parishioners from the five Episcopal parishes of the Marin Episcopal Youth Group. And at that service, I celebrated my first Eucharist in this diocese. I thank you for that honor. And one way that I want to show my gratitude is by sharing with you a little bit about the ordination experience itself.
During the rehearsal for the ordination service, we were told that after getting ordained, many people would likely approach us to ask us for a blessing. My fellow ordinands and I were aware of this in the back of our minds, but realized that we had not really learned or memorized any blessings while in seminary. So many of us panicked a bit and started flipping through the pages of the Book of Common Prayer for a simple blessing to memorize and use. I decided to use a blessing that I had memorized from my evangelical upbringing, a blessing from the Book of Numbers known as the Aaronic Blessing: “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May He make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. May He turn his countenance upon you and give you peace” (Numbers 6: 24 – 26). And then I would add on the trinitarian benediction: “And the blessing of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit be among you and remain with you forever. Amen.” I decided that would be my default blessing and if I’m inspired to say something else, I’d remain open to the Spirit.
We were then told that traditionally the first person a priest blesses after ordination is his or her mother, and then after one’s mother, his or her bishop. I loved this idea. Although my mom is not an Episcopalian and never expected her formerly mischievous son to ever become a priest, I knew she was proud of me and would appreciate receiving my first priestly blessing. And the bishop who ordained me is the Right Rev. Mary Glasspool, a courageous woman who is the first openly lesbian bishop in the Anglican Communion.
The night before the ordination, I went to bed thinking about the words of blessing that I would use for Bishop Mary, my mom and others. And that night I had a dream that, in many ways, I believe served as part of my ordination. Because it touched me so personally and deeply, I didn’t share it with many people, but now that it’s been two years, I feel invited to share it with people who I love and trust.
In the dream, I’m having a philosophical conversation with my dad that is driven by the question: “Why are we here? What’s our purpose as humans here on this earth?” My dad offers several intellectual answers, which I find ultimately dissatisfying. He then says, “Ok since you’re not satisfied with any of the answers that I am offering with my words, let me show you an answer.” He then brings in a television and VCR and puts in a VHS tape recording of an episode of the Late Show with David Letterman. In this dream world, my older brother is apparently an intern for the Letterman show and, in this particular episode, my brother performs a song that he wrote for my mom during the closing credits. Now my brother is not really a singer or a songwriter, but in the dream he is clearly excited to be singing on live television this song that he wrote for our mom. And although he has some professional background singers, the song is not really that good by professional standards. It’s my brother’s enthusiasm that seems to be the source of the entertainment and humor. The whole bit appears to be comical at my brother’s expense. I look at my dad and say, “I don’t know if I understand. I guess this is kind of funny.” And then I look at my mom who has been in the room the whole time. And I see her face beam with a confident joy, proudly receiving and absorbing my brother’s song with deep pleasure and delight. She seems to see straight through whatever joke is being made at my brother’s expense and sees into my brother’s heart, where she sees my brother’s love for her; and then she says to me, “It’s not funny at all. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world.”
And at these words I wake up and right away know that, in the dream, my mom represents God, who sees all human acts of love and worship as “the most beautiful thing in the world.” No matter how imperfect or unprofessional they might be according to the world’s standards, God sees our gifts and acts of love as profoundly beautiful and receives them with deep joy and pleasure.
My dream taught me that the reason we are here on this earth is to love and worship God with our gifts, even if those gifts have not yet been perfectly polished, and even if those gifts are not honored and celebrated by the rest of the world. God still receives them with unimaginable joy when they are offered in love. Paul tries to communicate this when he describes the parts of the Body of Christ that are generally considered weak and inferior and says that these are the parts that God upholds with great honor (1 Corinthians 12:23-24).
The gifts of teaching and healing and prophecy are all necessary and need to be developed in the Body of Christ, but Paul says, “Strive for the greater gifts,” which as he explains in the next chapter are “faith, hope, and love” and “the greatest of these is love” because nothing brings God more joy and delight than receiving love from his children, nothing is more beautiful in all the world.
My dream taught me that this humble gathering here this morning is, to God, the “most beautiful thing in the world,” bringing God more joy and pleasure and ecstasy than we can ever imagine. This gathering of hearts that love God and express that love (at times imperfectly) through prayer and song and liturgy is to God the most beautiful thing in the world. And the image of God as a mother joyfully proud of her loving child gives me courage and strength and hope for the church. And though the dream brought me to tears just as the hearing of the Torah brought the people of Israel to tears (in our reading from Nehemiah), I do not shed tears of grief but rather tears that come from feeling and knowing that the joy of the Lord is my strength. The joy of the Lord is our strength.
So after Bishop Mary ordained me and the Spirit of the Lord was prayed upon me to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, I blessed my mom, Bishop Mary and about a hundred other people with these words of blessing that I offer as a blessing to you all now: “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May he make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. May he turn his countenance upon you and give you peace. And may you find strength and courage and creativity in knowing that God delights in you and is proud to call you his own and receives your love as the most beautiful thing in the world and the blessing of God, the Lover, the Beloved and the Love Overflowing be among you and remain with you forever. Amen.”